The royal city of Hua Hin, 200 kilometres south of Bangkok on the western shore of the Gulf of Thailand, is one of those surprising places offering more than many first-time visitors expect.
An eclectic mix of culture, history, beaches, food, golf and even a winery in the hinterland makes Hua Hin (literally “head rock” when translated from Thai) the natural choice of Bangkok residents and foreign visitors for a weekend or week away – or, as increasingly occurs among northern Europeans, for the whole winter season.
By PAUL MYERS
Hua Hin boasts a reliable, mostly year-round dry climate without the cloudy, showery weather sometimes experienced during the northern hemisphere summer on Thailand’s Andaman Sea coastline.
In high season, between December and March, you’re just as likely to hear German, French, Swedish and Italian spoken in Hua Hin’s narrow village streets as English or Thai – such is its popularity with northern European snowbirds escaping the winter freeze in their homelands.
While golf is one of Hua Hin’s main attractions – there are nine excellent courses in Prachuap Kiri Khan province – numerous other attractions have made Hua Hin Thailand’s new tourism hotspot.
The town’s wide, attractive beachfront boasts a large choice of high-end and mid-range hotels and resorts, plus restaurants in and near town that feature local seafood and the dishes of many nationalities.
Thailand’s royal family made Hua Hin its summer home after the director of the state railway, Prince Purachatra, built the Railway Hotel (now the Centara Grand Hotel) close to the beach in 1921. King Prajadhipok (Rama VII) liked the town so much he built a summer palace there, later named Klai Kang Won (“far from worries”).
Today, far from worries epitomises Hua Hin’s large and growing tourism appeal. You go there to unwind, relax, enjoy the surroundings and participate in many excursions and activities available.
Golf has been integral part of Hua Hin’s modern history since 1924 when Royal Hua Hin Golf Course became Thailand’s first golf course, creating a golfing history that not only continues today, but has made Hua Hin one of Asia’s most popular golf tourism destinations.
This was acknowledged in 2013 when Hua Hin was named Golf Destination of the Year for Asia and Australasia at the annual convention of the International Association of Golf Tour Operators (IAGTO).
For the past two years, Bangkok-based Golfasian and Australian company Go Golfing have capitalised on Hua Hin’s golfing fame by staging the Centara World Masters, an amateur event for golfers over 35, that has become Asia’s largest and most popular amateur tournament, attracting more than 500 players in 2015.
Just 15 minutes from town, Black Mountain Golf Club opened in 2007 and quickly began picking up awards: best new course in Asia (2007), second best course in Thailand (2008) and, for the past five years, the premier accolade of Thailand’s best course.
With natural creeks running through the course and stunning black rock mountain backdrops, Black Mountain is not just Thailand’s best layout, but one of its most beautiful. Numerous downhill and uphill holes, several with difficult water carries, and interesting man-made rock formations make it a wonderful visual – as well as playing – golf experience.
Black Mountain has hosted several professional tournaments, including the True Thailand Classic, held in 2015 for the first time and to be repeated in 2016 and 2017.
Just 10 minutes from town, Banyan Golf Club and Resort, which opened in 2009, also has collected numerous plaudits and awards. It was named third best course in Thailand at the Asia Pacific Golf Summit in 2011 and in 2014 picked up the accolade for the best clubhouse in Asia Pacific.
Pineapple patches, bougainvillea beds and banyan trees come into play on the hillside layout. Due to its often-sloping fairways and thick rough, many keen golfers believe Banyan plays a few shots harder than Black Mountain.
The award-winning clubhouse, situated on the highest part of the property, offers stunning vistas of the Burmese Mountains, especially at sunset.
Trip Advisor lists Banyan as the number one tourist attraction in Hua Hin.
The Jack Nicklaus-designed 27-hole Springfield Royal Country Club opened in 1993 and remains one of the region’s favourite courses. As well as it considerable golf credentials, Springfield is a wildlife sanctuary for more than 100 species of birds.
Majestic Creek Golf Club & Resort, 25 minutes from Hua Hin in a rich countryside setting, is also a 27-hole complex that recently has been transformed into one of the region’s best golfing experiences.
Sea Pines Golf Course (also known as the Army Golf Club II) is set along the Gulf of Thailand just south of Hua Hin and is open to the public.
Most of the course features bracken pine trees and is enriched by the beauty of oceans and mountains. The army originally developed the site as a form of retreat for serving soldiers and veterans and their families.
With 36 holes, Imperial Lake View Resort and Golf Club, is close to Black Mountain and is another option for golf visitors.
Meanwhile, Royal Hua Hin Golf Course, located next to the railway station a kilometre from the centre of town, offers a rare experience – playing Thailand’s first golf course, first built to accommodate British railway workers and the Thai aristocracy. Designed by a Scottish engineer and updated in the 1980s, it may have been overshadowed by new courses that have been built in the past 20 years, but remains well worthwhile playing for its nostalgic appeal alone.
Other golf choices include Palm Hills Golf Club, between Hua Hin and Cha-am, Kang Krachan Country Club and Golf Resort, a 27-hole complex opened in 1994, and Sawang Resort, also with 27 holes located in neighboring Petchaburi province.
Excursions: While the Royal Palace in Hua Hin, where Thailand’s King Aldulyadej land Queen Sirikit now live, is off-limits to the public, Maruekhathaiyawan Palace between Cha-Am and Hua Hin, is open to visitors. Built by King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) as a seaside summer retreat in 1923, the building is raised from the ground on pillars and entirely made from teak. Its attractive architectural style is completely different from other Thai royal palaces.
Walking around the palace provides a rare insight into how the Thai royal family lived almost a century ago. While there visitors can explore a nature trail in the surrounding mangrove forest. About 15km west of Hua Hin, Wat Huay Mongkol temple complex is famous for its enormous statue of one of Thailand’s most famous monks, Luang Phor Thuad. A statue of the monk, about 12 meters tall and 10 meters wide, is set on a large mound. The image can be seen from far away above the surrounding trees. On each side of the giant statue is a huge wooden elephant. Local people walk in circles under the belly of the elephant wishing for good luck. The complex also holds a temple, a statue of King Taksin the Great on horseback and shops where Buddhist amulets can be bought.
Six kilometers south of Hua Hin is the small village of Khao Takiab. Khao Takiab Mountain, with its impressive golden 20- metre high Buddha statue, can be seen from the beach in Hua Hin. The village of Khao Takiab is a beautiful and relaxed place to stay, quieter than Hua Hin, with a great sandy beach and numerous seaside restaurants.
On top of Khao Takiab hill, also known as monkey mountain is Wat Khao Lad Temple, also known as monkey temple because many monkeys live there.
A day-trip to Damnoen Saduak Floating Market is a real treat and an insight into traditional Thai life. A stop at Amphawa Evening Market is included in this package tour. The market features inexpensive Thai desserts, ancient coffee, seasonal fruits and other local produce.
A safari-style trip into Kaeng Krachan National Park is a heart-pounding ride through jungle inhabited by wild elephants, bears, leopards, Indo-Chinese tigers and other endangered species.
The trip includes a visit to Kaeng Krachan Reservoir where you can sail on the forest-fringed lake.
Khao Sam Roi Yod National Park, about 30 minutes south of Hua Hin, is famous for its dense forest cover, limestone caves, petrified waterfall and dangling stone tentacles. You can explore mangrove forests fringing the picturesque shoreline by kayak.
Kaeng Krachan National Park – Thailand’s largest national park – is 60km from Hua Hin and home to the 11-tiered Pala-U Waterfalls, a Karen ethnic hill-tribe community, more than 400 species of birds, wild elephants, bears, tigers and a multitude of rare mammals, flora and fauna.
Monsoon Valley Winery, part of the New Latitudes wine movement, is nestled in a scenic mountain valley 45km west of Hua Hin. The loamy sand and slate soil feeds several Rhone grape varieties. A daily shuttle service to the winery leaves Hua Hin at 9am and returns at 3pm.
Markets: Chat Chai Market and Hua Hin Night Market is located on Hua Hin’s main beach stretch, close to the Hilton hotel and has everything for bargain hunters.
The arts-oriented Cicada Market is ten minutes south of town near the Hyatt Regency Hua Hin and offers a wide selection of home-made clothes, accessories, gifts and souvenirs, as well as food. It is open on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings from 4pm.
Hua Hin’s seaside location means there is always an ample supply of seafood. This is reflected in the plethora of seafood restaurants situated on and near the beachfront.
You Yen Hua Hin Balcony provides a wonderful glimpse into the Hua Hin of yesteryear. The restaurant is set in an elegant, restored wooden Thai house, built in the 1920s, with a sweeping beachfront that doubles as an al fresco dining area.
Also set by the ocean, Baan Isara’s main building is a two-storey wooden Thai house painted in pastel green. The outdoor terrace overlooks the ocean. Baan Isara’s seafood menu fuses European and Thai flavours and features signature dishes including stir-fried enamel venus shell in sweet basil sauce, splendid squid salad and stir-fried crab in black peppercorn sauce.
Sang Wien Seafood, is a long-time favourite Hua Hin eatery known for its tasty, supersised seafood dishes. Set right on the beach, there’s no attempt to decorate the place whatsoever (imagine corrugated iron roofs and rickety wooden tables and benches), but offers great value for money.
Orchids Located on the main Beach stretch, close to Hilton Hua Hin, this Thai-French restaurant features an extensive selection seafood, grilled meat, steaks as well as beers, wines and cocktails on its menu. Each dish is prepared with the freshest ingredients and organic produce. Seating areas occupy two levels and feature Thai art on the walls. The street-level has a more elaborate atmosphere, with high ceilings, stained glasses and wood accents.
Tapas Cafe is set in a restored wooden shop-house with a 1950s colonial style interior. The menu features an array of Spanish tapas dishes, wines, cocktails, beers and spirits. The covered terrace on the second floor is ideal for chilling out.
A five-minute walk up Khao Takiab mountain south of Hua Hin, La Mer has great food and views. The restaurant overlooks the entire stretch of beaches from Cha-Am to Hua Hin and Khao Takiab. Featuring Thai-style seafood, the menu extends to regional dishes and a selection of Chinese stir-fries.
For Italian food aficionados, La Villa, the first Italian restaurant in town, opened its doors in 1987 thanks to an Italian expat’s craving for home cooking. Almost all of the ingredients are imported from Italy, so you can expect top quality products and an impressive selection of freshly-made regional Italian dishes. Peppino and Mama Mia are other Italian eateries well worth experiencing.
Hua Hin has a great selection of spas, with most resorts offering spa treatments. Among these are Anantara Resort and Spa, Burai Spa at Hua Hin Hyatt Regency, and the Dusit Thani hotel.
Specialist spa resorts include Chiva-Som International Health Resort, Villa Maroc and Six Senses Hideaway at Paknampran Beach, about 30 minutes south of town.
Cr. Photos: Chiva Som International Health Resort